This time of year, I am a total bleeding heart.
Unlike most of my fellow employment law bloggers, I love Valentine’s Day, and I don’t have much of a problem with consensual workplace relationships between unmarried people. People spend most of their lives at work, and so I can see how they might (1) have limited relationship options outside the workplace, and (2) easily develop an “affinity” with a co-worker through normal everyday contact at work.
A workplace relationship certainly does pose risks — from a legal standpoint and from a career standpoint. But while I’m in this lovey-dovey mood, I’ll give you five ways to have a workplace relationship without the heartbreak of a demotion or a lawsuit.
♥ Look before you leap. If you aren’t already head over heels, in which case it might be too late, think through the ramifications of the relationship before you get too far. Imagine the worst: You get dumped, and can’t even get over it because you have to see your lost love every day at work and maybe even interact with him or her. Or you are the dumper, and the dumpee starts stalking you after hours or bad-mouthing you around the office. Or everything is swell, but one of you has to transfer to another position because you’re in a direct reporting relationship. Will the relationship be worth taking a step back in your career if necessary? Do your best to determine whether you can really deal with what may come.
♥♥ Be up front about your relationship with your supervisors and with Human Resources. This is essential, especially if the two of you work in the same department, and especially especially (not a typo) if you are in a direct reporting relationship. One of you may be asked to move elsewhere. Discuss that early, and decide in advance who is going to move. (In the old days, the woman usually had to quit or move to another position, but that’s sexist, so now employers usually tell the couple to decide among themselves who will move.)
♥♥♥ If your company requires you to sign a relationship agreement, sign it. The agreement will protect the company, but it could also protect you from a complaint of sexual harassment if things go bad.
♥♥♥♥ Be professional at work. No PDAs (public displays of affection). If everybody in your workplace uses “Mr.” and “Ms.,” or some other formal term of address, then address each other that way while you’re at work. Needless to say, don’t send intimate messages to each other using the company email or text messaging service. Even though you only have eyes for him or her, don’t ignore or neglect your other co-workers.
♥♥♥♥♥ If you break up, stay civil at work, or relocate or quit if you can’t. Some breakups are easier than others. Maybe neither one of you took the relationship very seriously, and so neither one of you is traumatized. In that case, it will probably be easy to keep working together. Or maybe you did take it seriously, but you both (miraculously) agreed at the same time that things just weren’t working out. No hard feelings. Let’s stay in touch.
But then we have the awful kinds of breakup. The one-sided dump. The cheating breakup, including but not limited to the breakup that occurs because one partner is cheating on you with another co-worker. Or the “mutual-hostile” breakup, which occurs after both partners discover that they despise each other with the heat of a thousand suns. If you’re in one of these bad breakups, you may have no choice but to start looking for another job. At the very least, you may have to ask for a transfer to your company’s Uzbekistan Office. (See ♥, above.)
Of course, none of these bad things will happen to you. Happy Valentine’s Day, you crazy kids!
Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.